Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2017

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Gov. Brian Sandoval’s quest: Blocking a tax hike

Brian Sandoval

Brian Sandoval

Gov. Jim Gibbons

Gov. Jim Gibbons

To the delight of fiscal conservatives across the state, Jim Gibbons swept into the governor’s office four years ago. It was the culmination of an anti-tax crusade he had waged throughout his political career.

He had signed a no-new-tax pledge, spearheaded a constitutional amendment making it more difficult for the Legislature to increase taxes and had a lengthy record voting against taxes in Congress.

Despite Gibbons’ bona fides as an anti-tax governor, the state saw a record tax increase during his single term in office — an increase Gibbons was either powerless to stop or did little to prevent, depending on who tells the story.

Enter Gov. Brian Sandoval, by reputation a moderate Republican on social issues and the person who as attorney general fought the legal battle to raise taxes in 2003.

In an unlikely twist, Sandoval has become a hero of anti-tax advocates.

Here’s why:

Although he has a sparse record to support his promise not to raise taxes, Sandoval has been remarkably consistent with his vow to hold the line on revenue as the state deals with its budget crisis.

Conservatives think Sandoval is better positioned and better equipped to prevent another tax increase than Gibbons ever was. Sandoval has promised to engage in negotiations to persuade lawmakers — he has long-standing relationships with many of them — to pass his budget without a tax increase.

“Flat out, yes,” Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, said when asked if Sandoval stands a better chance of preventing a tax increase than his predecessor. “Not only is he better equipped, personalitywise and negotiationwise, the numbers in the Legislature help him. And with Sen. (Bill) Raggio gone now, the governor is in a very good position.”

Democrats no longer have a veto-proof majority in the Assembly and are down one senator from 2009, when they ran roughshod over Gibbons’ budget.

The consistency of Sandoval’s anti-tax message has surprised some of his more moderate supporters, who assumed he was simply trying to get through a primary against two strongly anti-tax opponents.

But Sandoval was just as resolute after the primary, and has been since becoming governor.

Indeed, Sandoval and his team have worked to portray his antipathy toward taxes not merely as a campaign promise, but as a “deeply held belief” that raising taxes would worsen Nevada’s beleaguered economy.

That has somewhat mitigated concerns by conservatives that Sandoval’s reputation as a moderate will lead him to compromise in the heat of budget negotiations next session.

“We were waiting for that shoe to drop, especially after the Raggio experience,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative operative who works to wrangle anti-tax pledges out of the state’s elected officials.

He blames Raggio for breaking a vow he made not to raise taxes during his 2008 primary battle with conservative Sharron Angle.

Still, Sandoval faces a difficult political environment in the next session, going up against powerful lawmakers from both parties who have begun to line up behind the idea that additional revenue will be needed to spare government services from unacceptable cuts.

“I am concerned that all those things that Gov. Sandoval has brought to the table are not enough to beat back the majorities in the Legislature, which have pretty clearly and repeatedly indicated that it is their intention to raise taxes this session,” said former state Sen. Bob Beers, who was a resolutely anti-tax lawmaker.

Those with a more charitable view of Gibbons’ administration blame lawmakers for the 2009 tax increase, not Gibbons’ refusal to fight for his budget. “I don’t think anyone thinks that it was for a lack of anything other than a lack of enough legislative muscle to defeat the override of his veto,” Beers said.

However, Sandoval’s relationship with lawmakers who hold him in higher esteem than they did Gibbons, and his willingness to engage in the horse-trading ritual with those who have priorities beyond the budget could give him just enough might to defeat an override of his promised veto on a tax increase.

“They were willing to override because they had such a lousy relationship with Gibbons,” Muth said. “I don’t think you are going to see that with Sandoval. When it comes time to overriding that veto, I’m not so sure you can count on the same people voting for a tax increase to vote for an override.”

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